It had to happen at some point during my Parisian au pair stint…un français et moi, a Frenchie and me! Despite my mantras of, “I’m independent here….I’m not looking for the big night life…blah blah blah” of course I still wanted a nightlife in Paris! As it turned out, the nightlife sought me.
When my boss Magalie, her son Grégoire and Thierry (the boyfriend/the daddy) went on vacation in the South of France, Magalie rented out Chez Nous to a Spanish family through an online program as a way of mitigating the costs of her vacation. Her mitigation was my transplantation, and I stayed at Thierry’s apartment for that week, in the west of Paris (literally, the two were living on opposite sides of the city, adding to the drama of their unconventional and yet, very “French” relationship).
I had a whole list of telephone numbers in case I would have problems getting into his apartment or using the bus, etc. One of the “just in case” numbers was Thierry’s friend and coworker. Christophe was a tennis instructor who lived within a short walking distance fromChez Thierry. Magalie joked when giving me the number, “Effectively, you could have a French friend for the week if you wanted.” As it turned out, I didn’t need the French “friend” because I didn’t have any problems and was all too ready to bask in a three-year-old-less solitude.
I had the chance to meet Christophe nonetheless. He was the one who brought Magalie, Thierry and Grégoire home from the airport. My only real impression of him was that he was nerdy and awkward, but upon reflection, my perception at the time was highly questionable.
I was in shock at receiving all of them at once. It was late at night, and I was tired. While Grégoire’s French had improved after a week with adults, my solitary week had done very little for my French. I acclimated [escaped] by playing with Grégoire as he reunited with all the toys he had missed during vacation. The rest of the apartment and people faded into a blur.
Apparently I had not been a blur. Three weeks later, I received a French text message saying something along the lines of, “Hello. This is Christophe, the friend of Magalie and Thierry. We met when they returned from the airport. If you want to go out some night in Paris, it would be a pleasure. If you are interested, give me a sign….”
My first reaction was surprise that my cell phone was vibrating in the middle of the afternoon, since I rarely used it. It was merely a tool for receiving calls. I hadn’t seen a need to buy credit for making the occasional call to…to whom, really? Usually a phone vibration meant Magalie was trying to track me, but mostly, it was my over-equipped time-telling device.
Once I overcame the shock to read the mysterious midday message, all I could do was laugh, literally bending at the knees, hunching over and gasping for breath. I had visions of Thierry and Magalie plotting against their friends (or plotting for their friends?) and then I was just thinking…what do I do?!?!
I waited until the evening to fiddle with the phone enough to send a text message to say that my credit (that had been purchased just for my complicated ‘vacation’ week in case of emergencies and to remain in contact with Magalie) would expire the very next day, and email would be much more convenient. Less than ten minutes later, there was an email in my inbox!
“Hopefully I didn’t shock you. I glimpsed you at Magalie’s house, but it wasn’t a practical moment to speak, but if the situation were to change, it would be a pleasure.”
All I could imagine was the pasty, white, nerdy guy and dangers of willingly entering the social circuit of my employers. On the other hand, it was the opportunity to experience Paris by night, as I had not properly done.
I didn’t really have a curfew or a clock striking midnight with consequential princess-to-rags transformations, despite what my homebody habits might have indicated. Above all, it was a chance to practice French. Thus, I did the typical: drug it out, you know, “…yeah, well, I’ll check the schedule. Oh, I don’t know…blah blah blah,” not really intending to blow him off but not yet ready to face the situation.
However, his persistence won the set while I dawdled (to use a word from my Mom that to this day makes my skin crawl). Thus on a Thursday, we made arrangements to meet in front of a church, which in writing seems to put a lot of pressure on the coming together of a man and a woman. My liking of the giant head sculpture and not a premonition of holy matrimony drove my choice of location. I must add that Christophe deserved credit for taking a less-cellular route with me. A lot of people tend to shy away or view the situation as impossible when dealing with someone who is only semi-connected by telecommunications.
My metro ride to the said church (not the altar) was nerve-racking. “Think in French! Think in French,” I kept telling myself and clinging to metro conversations to test my comprehension. How would my French be? Would I acclimate to his speaking? At various levels of language acquisition, I have found that I can really jive with one person and be completely left in the dark with another. I attribute the relativity of understanding to comfort levels that were not exactly sky high before this rendez-vous (which generally just means MEETING in French. It’s not always the romantic insinuation it is when adopted by English).
On top of linguistic nerves, there was the conscientiousness of “I’m being nice.” “Am I going to have to let him down in some way?” This wasn’t an issue of arrogance. I wasn’t imagining myself beating off the boys with baguettes, but I’ve had enough “hanging out” with guys who develop stronger feelings than I am willing to entertain.
To reiterate, my goals were: Paris, French conversation and a night without the Disney channel! There I was, on the large, stone stairs at the front door of L’Église Saint Eustachewatching the merry makers at Quigley’s Pub (one of my many nicknames incidentally) awaiting Christophe.
I focused on watching people because
(a) It’s what I do and
(b) To appear a bit distracted, as I didn’t have a clear mental vision of his face.
Reason letter (b) may sound awful, but due to the coup de choc of the night I “met” him, my memory was merely darts in brief, nerdy heres and theres, as he told me that he had come to Thierry’s house to meet/check on me but I hadn’t opened the door. Why would I have been at home when all of Paris awaited me?
Christophe’s call interrupted my people scanning and mind racking. He had arrived and was trying to precise my location. “I’m in front of … Qu… [How do you say Quigley’s (an Irish bar for tourists) in a French accent?!?] Quigley’s.”
Less than a minute later, the periphery paused and blurred. It was a pause that turned my normal, serious, something-is-wrong demeanor into a slightly upturned smile of relief. My whole physique lightened in that brief moment, and when motion recommenced, I quickly gave a wave of recognition.
This was not an awkward nerd who would dart away from me with every word he uttered. This was a well-dressed, sun-kissed, fit, French guy with a plan and a direction. D’accord! My whole outlook changed. I was starting on a clean slate rather than calculating how I would have to end it all. The night had no expectations and barely had an end.
“Pour quoi pas?” became the motto of the evening. “Why not?” It started when Christophe addressed the unexpectedness of his random text message invite after only catching a “glimpse” of me weeks ago. “Pour quoi pas” also led us from one activity to the next.
The soirée transitioned from sitting and talking at an outdoor pub (italicized because that is the “French” word for ‘pub’) to rolling my eyes and raising a brow at a girl who bumped into me. She added a splash of my red Corbières to my white, mix-tape strewn shirt in a “cozy” grotto of a bar (“cozy” would be the real-estate-agent term for what les gens normaux would call “crowded,” no negative implications intended). After the grotto, we found ourselves conversing in front of Le Sacré Coeur until the wee hours of the morn when Christophe drove me home to my “juuust outside Paris” apartment. It had been spontaneous, fun and refreshing.
However, what had started as a spiral of spontaneity soon became suffocation.
Date number two was set: a pique-nique in the Bois de Boulogne which garnered “zee French looooverrrr” jokes from Magalie. Yes, I knew it was an extremely cliché setting for only the second soirée, but my affinity for picnics won against my dating instincts. My need for kitchen creativity beat my better judgments into a chocolaty batter.
Although my au pair status meant “sharing” the apartment, including the kitchen and its utensils, I never really felt comfortable or well enough equipped to continue my baking hobby. With bakeries on every corner, and every half block in between those corners, and a history of mothers and grandmothers as the subconsciously ingrained standards, the motivation to bake was miniscule. Yet, I took the risk on this picnic, and I offered to bring the dessert.
It is true that love is a secret ingredient to any baked good. My Best Friend Dear (her official title in my world) once maintained a lot of bitterness for the birthday boy recipient of one of our baking endeavors. His cake burned in the oven. I sliced, iced and made that cake look like a well-loved intention.
It is important, however, to dissect this love ingredient. It is said that food is the fastest way to a man’s heart. A delicious baked good is probably at the forefront of the race to the coeur, but sometimes the “two and a half cups love” are poured into the batter of tradition, into meditative mixing, into the final touches, chocolate finger licking and NOT into the man who eats it.
This was one of those mix-versus-man cases, but when you bring a guy cake on a second date, a picnic date nonetheless (a picnic date that would have also included a shimmery night view of the Eiffel Tower had he not chosen to sit just beyond the Eiffel-blocking trees), the love ingredient malfunctioned. It hit the chemical reactions of the stomach which sent mixed signals to the brain, inducing visions of double dates, mothers, altars, maternity wear and [authorial interlude: my chest is pounding harder with each word typed]… TOO MUCH!!!
Christophe had apparently shed his spontaneity at Montmartre. There was such a nervousness and need to impress with something as trivial as the rotisserie chicken selection. Then there were emails about weekend trips and one-way tickets to loverville. When my phone vibrated with the message “tu me manques, doctor c’est grave?” I literally thought I’d have to call a doctor for the onset of an anxiety attack.
It felt as if Christophe tried to match my energy and independent spirit, which left me drained and imprisoned. The unison may have been a bit disastrous, but wasn’t it a pretty cake?
Things fizzled, but how they fizzled is another story, a story with a gypsy jazz soundtrack and an accordion cake idea still harmonizing in my head.